A leader might have the best of intentions when planning a special event or photo opportunity, but sometimes the best of intentions can go terribly wrong.

Take, for example, the leader who shows up in a suit or dress shirt with pulled up sleeves ready to muck in with the staff. While the leader often thinks this makes them just like the rank and file, it often comes across as ‘Get a load of me mucking in with these lowlifes!’

If you’re really interested in getting in with your crew, dress appropriately and actually do your homework about the job you intend to take on. Instead of looking like an out of touch fool, you might actually improve morale as intended.

A Rule and/or Policy For Everything?!?

We’re only human. Even in the most efficient, well run organizations there are bound to be things that go wrong or fall through the cracks. The only sure way to recover from such a problem is to be flexible and empower staff to do what it takes to recover from these issues. While this should be good enough, sometimes human nature takes hold and the organization spirals into sure insanity- trying to insure that the situation, no matter how rare, never happens again!

In a situation that only a robot would love, the organization then goes into crisis mode, spending precious time figuring out what might have gone wrong and scheduling endless meetings to come up with new rules and policies to prevent the situation from rearing its head again. This might be a good use of time- if the situation isn’t a rarity, a quick, initial analysis shows a breakdown in an existing procedure or the consequences of the issue were huge. However, many organizations treat each and every problem as if it was the end of the world and requires some sort of new rule or policy to avoid it.

While nobody wants to purposely experience a customer service breakdown, it is important to note that not every breakdown is a major issue and most of them are freak occurrences. Treating them all like major issues creates a paranoid organization that spends way too much time planning for unlikely calamities. While it might be useful to spend a few minutes evaluating every incident for severity and frequency of recurrence, most organizations will find that 99% of these issues are not worth pursuing further. If future events force a re-evaluation, that’s great, but most of the time a functional organization can just move on.

A flexible organization with empowered staff can recover quickly from these types of calamities. Don’t bog down your organization with burdensome policies and rules that will most likely never need to be used or will affect customer service to “fix” a problem that might not actually exist. Your staff and customers will thank you.

Resource Burglars

Every organization has them; when annual meetings occur to prioritize projects and plan out the next year, they agree with the majority and play nice with management. However, once they get back to their offices, they forget what they agreed to and start trying to get their projects pushed through regardless of the strain on resources.

It seems like it should be easy to avoid these pitfalls, but resource burglars are often very clever. They may try to sneak their projects through as regular everyday requests. By the time the resources figure out the con, well, might as well finish things up, right?

The easiest way to avoid these conflicts is to make sure that everyone in the organization knows and understands what the priorities are. A good way to do this is to put the goals in writing and prominently display them in the office. It’s hard to ignore an agreement that is visible to everyone.

Goals and priorities do change, but it is important to make sure that your group is protected from being taken advantage of. Be flexible, but be careful to alert decision makers what the trade-off might be. Every change will result in some delay for another project. Make sure everyone involved is aware of the consequences and potential drawbacks.

Ignoring Reality

It’s a reality of life in many organizations. The powers that be decide to embrace The Next Big Thing and they begin to bring in new managers to implement this new idea.

Then the exodus begins. At first, the powers that be are excited. Obviously, these people are walking out the door because the bold new managers are stirring things up. Their absence will only help things, since they obviously must have been the people holding things up, right? That’s probably true in some instances, but it might be a good idea to keep an eye on the situation and look at the feedback from exit interviews. Or just ignore everything and assume that this is the fire needed to clear away the unnecessary underbrush.

Or you could find yourself like Enron. When many people looked at the aftermath of Enron’s colossal collapse, it became clear early on that the company’s efforts to modernize itself and increase its stock price had placed it into an insurmountable death spiral. The company’s core business had been transporting natural gas around from point to point. When a brash young executive arrived on the scene and revolutionized the relatively mundane business of selling natural gas, the company took notice and quickly elevated him to company stardom. Jeffrey Skilling was the future of the company and the board wanted everyone to take notice.

At first, things seemed to be going well. While many longtime staff members ran for the exits, they were portrayed as “not getting it” and the company was deemed to be better off without them. Skilling quickly surrounded himself with others who thought the same way he did and they mocked and ridiculed not just the old guard at Enron, but their competitors, customers and industry.

Thus Enron began taking its eye off of the fundamentals, concentrating on the next shiny thing that would impress Wall Street. The people who actually produced the products and services for sale were marginalized and treated poorly. The brash, rude and obnoxious new blood soon chased off the people whose institutional memory and skills were vitally important in running an energy company. When the flashier things didn’t pay off, the company was forced to begin using accounting gimmicks to prop things up. Eventually the gimmicks became criminal acts and the company collapsed because the very people who could save it had been chased out years earlier.

Now the point of all this isn’t to say that companies should resist change; change is an inevitable part of the workplace these days. Yet change should be carefully managed and overseen. Rather than ignore the feedback when employees voluntarily depart after a change, it should be collected by a neutral party in the organization and analyzed to make sure that the organization isn’t setting itself up for defeat by putting in an abrasive leader who will just chase away staff and enforce his or her will regardless of whether it is workable or not. A good leader gets the lay of the land before making any changes. A disastrous leader barrels through his or her new department eliminating things just because they’re “old” or not in fashion. Just like the fashion world, businesses can become enraptured with trends and fads. How it deals with them can dictate whether the company is successful or a failure.

Leadership Lessons from Walt Disney: Be Genuine!

Imagine you’re being honored with an award that was voted on by your colleagues. An exciting honor, right? What if nobody bothered to invite you to the meeting where the award was being handed out and the manager who oversaw the team who voted on it was seemingly not enthusiastic about handing out the ‘honor’ in the first place? Obviously the organization would have been better off not doing anything; as a matter of fact, they most likely made things worse. Believe it or not, this anecdote actually happened and is an example of the pitfalls of doing something just because it is expected and not because the organization genuinely wants to do it.

Recognition programs can vary wildly depending on the organization and its budget. Some places offer huge bonuses or exciting rewards while others offer items of little or no value. Even the small awards can mean a lot if they are offered with GENUINE appreciation. Awards offered solely because they are expected can be more demoralizing than not offering anything at all. Great leaders know that a quick note of genuine appreciation can do more to make someone’s day than a valuable award presented with little enthusiasm just because the Human Resources department mandated it.

Walt Disney completely understood this. He may have sometimes been a bit sparing with compliments, but when he provided them, he MEANT them. That’s why his employees were so loyal. Mr. Disney left us over fifty years ago, yet the people who worked for him still gush about how great a boss he was and ardently defend his memory. Richard Sherman, pictured above between his brother Robert and Walt Disney, still gets teary-eyed speaking about Walt Disney:


“Walt was always a great believer in the team. He felt that the team made the pictures, and he was the captain of the team. He just got the best of everybody in the world. So, I’ve always felt very happy that people know our songs, and I feel very lucky that I was a part of that team.”




“On what would have been Walt’s 100th birthday at DISNEYLAND, I began to play his favorite song- ‘Feed the Birds’ when a bird suddenly flew down from a tree and landed right on my piano. It stayed there until I finished the song, then as quickly as it flew down, it flew away. I’m convinced, that that bird was Walt.”



Walt Disney earned such loyalty from his employees by genuinely appreciating their efforts and talent. If Mr. Disney handed you an award, gift or compliment, you knew he was sincere and genuinely appreciative. Not all of us can have the same impact on the world as Mr. Disney, but by genuinely appreciating the hard work that happens around us, we can try to have a positive impact on our respective organizations.

Leadership in the Trenches

When Colonel Harland Sanders began franchising his fried chicken restaurants he constantly traveled around the country to do his own taste tests. Since he had created both the secret chicken recipe and the unique cooking process, he knew just by tasting the food whether a particular restaurant was following his procedures to the letter. If they weren’t, he would head to the kitchen to give the staff a refresher course. Colonel Sanders was a leader who knew his business well enough to be able to do it himself.

Obviously, Sanders was a unique leader. As the company founder, he had created the very system that made him famous around the world. Nobody would expect the head of Kentucky Fried Chicken today to know as much as Colonel Sanders did about the chicken cooking process. However, he or she should have more than just a cursory understanding about how the restaurants are run; as well as how decisions made at the upper levels of management will affect the customer experience.

On the reality show Undercover Boss, however, we often see how little some company executives know about their businesses. The show follows a different CEO or division head each week as they don a fake disguise and visit different locations to see how things really happen out in the trenches. The strangest thing about the show is that it can find enough executives willing to go on it to begin with. We can forgive the predictable fumbling around as they try to make burgers, take customer orders or work on the assembly line, but the real shocker is how often the leader appears surprised about how some cutback or policy change negatively affected operations out in the field.

It seems obvious that cutting staffing, maintenance or supply quality will have an adverse effect on customers and employees, but often the show features the leader shaking their head in disbelief. ‘Cutting back on the maintenance budget resulted in less efficient operations and customer complaints? Who’d have guessed?’ The show often ends with the leader telling the camera that things will change, but why did the company choose to make such important decisions without considering the implications in the first place? And why didn’t they actually go out to the trenches to gauge how a change might affect operations? Often the answer is that the only thing that mattered was the bottom line or that management thought it knew better than the people on the front lines.

Good leaders don’t have to know the minutiae of the business like Colonel Sanders. They should, however, have an understanding of how their decisions will affect their front line staff and customers. Walt Disney constantly walked around Disneyland to see how things were going or what might need improvement.

He spoke with guests, experienced the park like a regular paying customer and tried to understand the park’s everyday operations. He often consulted with front line staff to figure out the challenges they faced and get suggestions for improvements. He might not have been able to operate Matterhorn Mountain, but he certainly understood how staffing and maintenance cutbacks would affect its daily operations.

Taking time to understand the organization’s operations and how each piece fits together is not only a sign of a great leader, but it can also help reduce unforeseen consequences when budget and policy changes are made. Plus, customers and employees appreciate being genuinely listened to. An organization might still run into problems, but having an ongoing dialogue with all stakeholders will result in them being much more patient when any slip ups occur.

Leadership Lessons From Walt Disney: Hidden Talents

Too many organizations give lip service to professional development. While staff are encouraged to take classes to improve their skills, little time is actually devoted to such things. Employees find themselves in a situation much like that of Cinderella- they can pursue professional development IF they complete their regular assignments and IF they can find the time. The organization might say that it values professional development, but its actions show the opposite to be true. Even if an employee can fit such luxuries into their schedules, they are often not permitted to apply their new skills to anything practical. Management further demoralizes its staff by importing new talent from outside the organization rather than promoting from within. In more extreme environments, management demeans its existing staff by not even  considering them for open positions. As most people can attest, using the phrase “national recruitment” often means “existing staff need not apply.”

So what can Mr. Disney teach us about actually valuing professional development and searching for hidden talents throughout the organization? Just take a look around his Magic Kingdom of DISNEYLAND. Mr. Disney learned early on that the so-called experts were more inclined to summarily dismiss his ideas as impossible without really thinking about them. An outside architect had told Mr. Disney that the Matterhorn Bobsleds and Submarine Voyage were impossible to build. Not one to easily take no for an answer, Mr. Disney assigned some of the early model building and design to employees that hadn’t previously done such work. One such employee- Imagineer Harriet Burns- later recalled how much she had learned on the project. Not only did she learn the ins and outs of model building and scaling, she also learned that she could actually accomplish such tasks.  By identifying her hidden talents and showing confidence in her skills, Walt Disney made an already top notch employee even more motivated to succeed. Not only did he give her time to learn something new, he gave her a chance to apply those new skills to a real world project that is still enjoyed today.

This was not an isolated incident. Another example can be found inside Pirates of the Caribbean. The attraction needed a song to tie things together, but instead of asking his staff song writers to put something together, he asked Imagineer Xavier Atencio to write something. Despite never having written a song before, Mr. Atencio successfully penned the attraction’s signature ditty Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life For Me). Mr. Atencio put it best when he marveled that:

“I didn’t even know I could write music, but somehow Walt did. He tapped my hidden talents.”

The song that he wrote is still heard around the world in the various Pirates of the Caribbean attractions at Disney parks.

By identifying hidden talents and finding practical uses for them, Mr. Disney built a loyal, talented and successful team that made the impossible possible. His staff accomplished great things because he believed they could do it and he encouraged them to step outside of their comfort zones. So many organizations could learn a thing or two from Walt Disney’s leadership. While it is very easy to talk about valuing professional development and nurturing hidden talents, it often seems to be a challenge for an organization to actually value these things in practice. Those that do can often accomplish great things and maintain a loyal, efficient workforce. Walt Disney truly valued these attributes and his team literally built mountains.